Rookies are almost always universally bad. Let’s put that fact on the table right away. Young players need time to develop, learn the speed of the NBA game and figure out how to be effective on the floor. They need time to get better, stronger and faster.
That doesn’t mean they are bad or destined to be so forever. They just need time to figure things out, and teams invest that time in those players.
But truly bad basketball players are bad forever. And teams invest time in those players as well to their detriment. The big question is which one is Killian Hayes?
The young Detroit Pistons point guard has battled injuries and ineffectiveness throughout his brief two-year career. But the clock might already be ticking on his tenure with the Pistons, and perhaps even his time in the NBA.
To put it simply, Killian Hayes is a bad basketball player. This is an objective fact. Subjectivity gets introduced when trying to figure out if he’s going to be that way forever. If you tell a Pistons fan Killian Hayes is bad they often get defensive. They object by noting just how few games Hayes has under his belt. He has played a little more than 1,500 minutes across two seasons. Yes, players need time to develop. But with each passing day, that argument loses a little more punch.
Eventually, they need to show something. As an NBA scorer, Killian has shown nothing. And in today’s NBA it’s hard to stick in this league if you can’t put the ball in the hoop in some way.
The precedent for his level of poor play does not paint a pretty picture for young Hayes. In fact, it’s unprecedented to play as many minutes as Hayes has and be this awful from inside and beyond the arc. But there are players who have faced similar struggles in the early parts of their careers. They were not quite as bad as Hayes, but they began their careers without a jump shot and turned things around, eventually securing starting roles and big paydays.
How Bad is Bad? Unprecedentedly Bad
First, though, it’s time to reckon with just how bad Killian Hayes has been. The 20-year-old point guard has started 51 of his 59 games and shot 34% from the field, 28% from 3, and gotten to the free-throw line just 50 times. He’s notched 258 assists to just 133 turnovers, but he’s playing with the ball in his hands less and less with the arrival and quick emergence of Cade Cunningham.
Even if you give Hayes a complete mulligan for his injury-marred rookie season, his second year has been an abject disaster as a shooter.
Among the 237 players who have played more than 10 games and averaged more than 20 minutes per contest, Killian Hayes ranks 237th, dead last, in true shooting percentage.
Of the 317 players who have at least 30 field goal attempts in the restricted area, Killian Hayes ranks 297th in field goal percentage with a meager 54.1% at the rim.
Of the 152 players who have at least 30 field goal attempts from mid-range, Killian Hayes ranks 148th in field goal percentage at 23.5%.
To put it plainly, Hayes is a no-level scorer in a league where the best players score at all three levels, and role players find at least one area of the floor where they can contribute at an average rate.
He’s a threat from nowhere, and that saps him of his greatest power — his ability as a passer. Without the threat of a shot, defenses don’t react to his drives and don’t fear him when he inevitably parks himself in the corner. And when a point guard is trying to distribute against five defenders instead of four it becomes much more difficult to find a passing lane.
Killian Has Great Potential as a Defender and Passer
It’s a shame because Hayes has displayed some superior NBA skills. His defense is already quite good at the point guard position, and at 6-foot-5, he has the size and could build the eventual strength to become a lockdown defender.
Likewise, his passing ability and vision are strong. The issue is, Hayes has few opportunities to showcase it. That is a result of a combination of the arrival of Cade Cunningham forcing Hayes to play more and more off the ball and Killian’s clear offensive struggles.
When you aren’t good enough to force defenses to react to anything, you cannot create passing opportunities or set up your teammates. Instead, Hayes is forced to rely on defensive errors providing an opening for him to exploit or his teammates doing most of the heavy lifting off the ball to get open. The fact that Hayes is able to average 3.6 assists in these circumstances is actually commendable, but an NBA player it does not make.
I am all for patience. I am all for force-feeding Hayes minutes in a season where wins aren’t a priority and likely wouldn’t happen no matter who is in the backcourt. Development is the priority and Hayes’ development falls near the top of the list. Importantly, I don’t think Hayes’ struggles are negatively impacting the development of Detroit’s other young pieces.
Throw him on the floor and let him sink or swim, I say. Unfortunately, Hayes might have already sunk.
What is Hayes’ Path to a Career?
Has a player who performed this poorly ever turned it around and carved out a useful NBA career for themselves? Yes, but not often.
It’s hard to find a precedent for Hayes’ play because players shooting as poorly as him through the first 50-plus games of their NBA careers do not typically get 1,500 minutes.
The reason for that heavy minute load is in the eye of the beholder. It could mean that a team is so focused on youth, and maybe tanking, that they would play a struggling player no matter the cost. Or it could mean that in spite of the offensive woes, there are enough other elements to their game that intrigue and are worth weathering the storm.
Only six players since 2010 have played at least 1,500 minutes in their first 59 games and struggled offensively similar to Hayes. And the list is interesting in that three of those players really did turn their careers around. Two did not. And then there is Killian who, it should be noted, is markedly the worst performer of the bunch on offense. So there is hope, however it is dimming.
Since 2010, here are the players who have played 1,500 minutes, shot 38% or worse from the field and 32% or worse from 3 in their first 59 games, per Basketball Reference. The fact that this list features three pretty damn fine players point to the fact that when a team determines it is worth investing heavy minutes in young players, those bets can pay off.
Lonzo Ball is now a 42% 3-point shooter on high volume playing off guard and plays quality defense for the surprising Chicago Bulls. He struggled early in his career and also rarely got to the free-throw line. Though he was even early on a far superior shooter to Hayes.
If we project out even further, Ball is the only player in NBA history to play 3000 minutes in his first 100 NBA games and shoot 38% from the field and 32% from 3. And, again, he turned his career around and become not just a competent but a dangerous 3-point shooter.
Ricky Rubio remained a pass-first and pass-second point guard who was a terror on defense and is currently in his 11th season, and was credited with helping to turn around a Cleveland defense along with rookie Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen before he suffered a season-ending injury. Rubio also shot at a sub-35% level though he was one of the more gifted passers in the league the moment he stepped onto the floor. Crucially, he also got to the free-throw line four times as often as Hayes so he was still a capable scorer even without a shot to rely on.
Those two are your Killian success stories.
Emmanuel Mudiay, drafted 7th overall just like Hayes, is on his fourth team in five years and has played just 11 minutes this season with his time in the NBA looking like it might be coming to a close at 25. Alexey Shved played for years overseas before getting a shot in the NBA at 24 and lasted just three seasons before returning to Russia. Those two are your cautionary tales.
Time is Already Running Out
Everything going forward is evaluated through the prism of what makes the most sense alongside Cade Cunningham. As more time passes, Hayes looks less and less like the possible answer. He’s not shooting nearly well enough to play off the ball, and Cunningham is looking more and more comfortable as the point guard if not in name then in offensive responsibility. Everything flows through him.
The Pistons will also have another likely top-8 draft pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. If they draft the best player available it could be a guard to complement Cade. Even if it’s a wing or a big man, Troy Weaver could use some of his upcoming cap space bounty to sign legitimate NBA shooters to help inject some life into Detroit’s woeful offense.
And that means despite just entering his third NBA season and at the age of just 21 years old, Hayes’ time in Detroit might be coming to a close.
He could come off the bench as a defensive-minded backup. He could fix his mechanics and learn how to shoot. He could get bigger and stronger and figure out ways to use his size to become a much better finisher at the rim.
All of those are possible. But the most likely scenario is staring at Pistons fans right in the face. Killian Hayes is a bad basketball player, and he might just be that way forever.